Learning to cook is no easy undertaking, especially if you didn’t grow up with parents who had access to delicious produce or the time or desire to spend hours in the kitchen. Many new cooks, getting into the process for the first time, are completely overwhelmed, especially when trying to learn on their own.
Luckily, we’ve compiled a list of savvy tips and tricks to save you time, energy, and sanity in the kitchen. Reserve the brainpower for the really hard stuff, and check out these bits of wisdom about ripening fruit, shortening bake time, and more.
1. Egg problem: How should you peel eggs to avoid getting pieces of egg attached to the shell? Many recipes call for boiling and then dunking eggs in an ice bath. Instead, try suspending eggs in a steamer over the boiling water for 15 minutes. Boom, easy peeling.
2. Infused: You can add a rich new level of flavor to rice, quinoa, millet, or bulgur by cooking them in “fancy” water. H2O infused with tea, especially Earl Grey, chai, and Lapsang souchong teas, adds robust depth. For umami goodness, try using chicken stock.
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3. E-Z-Peel: Before peeling and preparing a butternut squash for roasting or cooking, just nuke the whole thing in a microwave for 2 minutes. It won’t cook the squash, but it’ll make the skin and seeds a breeze to remove.
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4. Roasting veggies: Want a lot of flavor but don’t have a ton of time? Preheat the oven, with the pan inside, while you’re prepping the vegetables. Then carefully remove the pan and pour your veg on — when they hit the already-hot metal, they’ll quickly caramelize.
5. Basting brush: If you don’t own a brush, but your recipe calls for one, DIY your own instead. Cut a sheet of parchment paper, then fold it over on itself into a tight, multilayered rectangle. Cut one end of it into strips, and you’ve got an instant, disposable brush. Or nail a paintbrush to a ruler.
6. Hot stuff: Sick and tired of cold or room-temperature plates making your hot food coagulate too quickly? Set your oven to “warm” — or, if you don’t have a warm setting, just use its lowest temperature — and stack the plates inside until you’re ready to serve.
7. Meatloaf: It takes one heck of a long time to cook, and the bigger it is, the longer it takes. For a speedier dinner, try dividing meatloaf into individual portions. Using a muffin pan, you can cook the mini-loaves at ~450ºF for just 15 minutes. Top with mashed potatoes to make a “cupcake.”
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8. Wine: Mediocre wine tends to linger around the kitchen, taking up space for longer than necessary. If you don’t like it enough to drink it, try freezing it in ice trays, then using the cubes to flavor homemade sauces, or chill down spritzers and sangrias.
9. Ripe: Most of us have dealt with the spotty, overripe banana problem, but what if you need to make banana bread and only have light yellow bananas? Place whole bananas on parchment paper on a baking sheet, and let them sit in a preheating oven for a few minutes until the peels are black.
10. Wilt me not: If your container of kale is tipping on the brink of usability, don’t let the leaves go to waste. Freeze them in a Ziploc bag until the next time you need greens.
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11. Rare ingredient: If a recipe calls for buttermilk, but you have none, don’t frustratedly buy a quart and then only use a cup of it. Substitute Greek yogurt instead. For 1 cup of buttermilk, whisk 3/4 cup of yogurt together with 1/4 cup water or skim milk.
12. Fresh eggs: They rarely go bad, but if you’re worried about that carton that’s been sitting in the fridge, just place one of the eggs in a glass of water. If it sinks, it’s still fresh. If it floats, too much air has gotten into the shell, and it’s probably gone bad.
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13. Sharp idea: If you’ve been putting off sharpening your kitchen knives for a while, and you really need to chop stuff up, use a bread or steak knife. Their serrated edges will actually cut fruits instead of smashing them like a dull knife would.
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14. Go nuts: Toasted nuts are like powdered sugar in that you rarely need them, but when you do, it’s a pain to go through the steps of getting them. Instead, try toasting a lot of nuts at once, and freeze the leftovers. 325ºF is the best temperature for nut-toasting, by the way.
15. Bag stand: Storing gravy or soups in Ziploc bags to freeze them can get messy. To pour liquids into bags with no fuss, place the bags upright in a bowl or large measuring cup and fold the zip top outward into a little cuff. This helps keep the bag open and steady.
16. Soften that butter: Tons of recipes call for softened butter, but few cooks remember to take care of that step ahead of time. To soften butter in a hurry, heat up a cup — either with boiling water or in the microwave — and place it over a cube for a few minutes.
17. Powdered sugar: It’s one of those things you rarely need, and it’s a pain to go buy some for one recipe. Instead, just finely grind up some granulated sugar in a spice mill.
18. Caramelly: Say you’re in the middle of cooking three things at once, and that pan of caramelized onions is looking a little crispy. Just throw an ice cube in with the onions. It’ll cool the pan down, and the water will evaporate with no harm to the flavor.
19. Remnants: It’s tricky getting the last bit of salt or sugar out of those cardboard containers with the metal spouts. Instead of getting frustrated, save yourself some time by just cutting the corner off the container with a serrated knife.
20. Scrub-a-dub: To clean messy cast-iron grill pans, don’t use a dishrag, sponge or towel, as those will only get stained and ruined. Brush off the debris with a grill brush instead. If the food remnants are really caked on, turn the pan over on a gas burner and let the flames broil everything away.
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21. Self control: Have trouble with eating the whole sheet of cookies at once? Pre-dollop cookie dough and freeze it on a baking sheet, then bag up the frozen dollops and pull them out to bake one at a time when you feel a hankering.
Now that you know what to do, it’s time to learn what not to do. People want things done quickly, so it’s natural to cook eggs at a high temperature. But, low and slow is the way to go for that extra-fluffy consistency.
2. Complicating peanut butter cookies: Too many people throw boatloads of various ingredients in when making these cookies, and they don’t have to! The best recipes call for only four things: peanut butter, vanilla, sugar, and one egg. Mix and bake.
3. Roasting potatoes once: To achieve a crisp outside and creamy inside for roasted potatoes, boil them prior to putting them in the oven. The boiling process softens the center to perfection.
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4. Skillet bacon: It seems natural to throw bacon in a skillet and fry it up, but if you want to get the best flavor out of those glistening strips of meat — and why wouldn’t you? — bake them instead.
5. Refrigerate butter: Lots of people keep butter in the fridge, however, it’s not necessary. The fat content prevents it from spoiling when left out on the counter. Plus, everyone prefers a soft and easy spread.
6. Getting rid of pasta water: Obviously you have to strain pasta once it’s done boiling, but don’t get rid of all the water! Adding a bit of the now-starchy liquid thickens up any sauce.
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7. Using boiling water to make coffee: Resist the urge to dump boiling water into your coffee pot; it actually stifles some of the flavor. After boiling the water, wait 30 seconds, then add it.
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8. Cutting limes wrong: It’s a natural inclination to cut limes in half, but if you want to achieve the maximum amount of juice — and you do — cut the lime into quarters instead of halves.
9. Not measuring out pasta: When serving pasta, you always want to have the correct ratio of sauce to strands. Use a pasta fork to measure the amount that fits through the center hole — that’s one serving. Or, look at the box (sometimes).
10. Throwing away spoiled wine: No one wants to waste wine, but sometimes it begins to get a funky odor. To offset this issue, add a cleaned penny to the bottle. The coin, amazingly, will strip away the foul scent.
11. Using fancy vanilla: The more expensive the ingredient, the better it tastes, right? Wrong! People tend to splurge on fancier vanilla when baking, but when cooked with other ingredients, it actually loses the intensity.
12. Egg wastage: It might seem strange, but if you’re worrying about your eggs spoiling, you can actually freeze them. Crack them into ice cube trays if you don’t want to hang on to the shells.
13. Over-seasoning chicken: It’s natural to want to add as many spices to chicken as possible to create some epic flavors, but in reality, the only thing you truly need is salt.
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14. Ingredient-lacking mashed potatoes: How exactly can you spruce up the flavor of mashed potatoes? Try this: Before boiling your spuds, cook them in a pan with cream and butter. This adds way more flavor .
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15. Pouring batter into muffin pans: Everyone wants uniform cupcakes when they come out of the oven. To ensure every cupcake looks exactly the same, use an ice cream scoop instead of just eyeing a batter pour.
16. Wasting old bread: Once anything goes stale, it immediately finds its way into the trash. However, stale bread should be saved to create croutons or crostinis. Just make sure it’s free of mold.
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17. Two-pot fettuccine Alfredo: You might see a lot of recipes for this rich pasta dish that requires one pan for the sauce and one for pasta. Instead, boil water and add all the ingredients to one solo pot.
18. Avoiding lemon zest: A microplane is the perfect kitchen tool to create lemon zest, which adds depth to any dish. If you don’t have one, a vegetable peeler works just as well. Just make sure you don’t scrape too deep!
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19. Mincing garlic by hand: Every dish tastes better with a hint — or a whole lot — of garlic. If you want the maximum flavor possible, don’t mince by hand. Get a garlic press instead!
20. Ground chuck burgers: Before going straight to ground beef to mold hamburgers, buy an entire cut of beef, cut it into small cubes, and freeze it. Use a food processor to grind them up into a much better consistency.
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21. You don’t let your meat rest: If you’re serving meat directly off the heat, you’re not allowing those juices to distribute evenly throughout the cut. For average-sized portions, five minutes is enough, but for a whole bird or a roast, give it at least 20.
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22. You boil instead of simmer: This is an important distinction! A simmer means you’ve got a few bubbles coming to the surface every second or so. Anything more than that is a boil. Over boiling can lead to a rushed dish that’s cloudy, tough, or dry.
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23: You don’t let the pan get hot enough: This is one of the most common blunders inexperienced cooks make. When you add your sauté to a pan of cold oil, your veggies just get soggy and the food just ends up taking longer to cook.
24. Not shocking your vegetables after boiling: The cooking process will continue even after you take your veggies off the boil, so to avoid that soggy, flabby texture, plunge them into an ice bath or at least run them under very cold water.
25. Taking meat straight from the fridge to the pan: Cold meat will cook unevenly, with a burnt outside and raw inside. Let your meat get to room temperature before throwing it on the grill or on pan.
26. You’re too casual with measuring: Ingredient amounts on a recipe are there for a reason, especially in baking! That quarter teaspoon of flour can truly make all the difference between a rock-solid cookie and one that’s perfectly moist.
27. You over-soften your butter: Butter is one of those things that you have to plan ahead for. If yours is too mushy, your cookie dough will end up being more like batter and won’t hold shape.
28. Overcrowding the pan: When you’re in a hurry (or impatient), it’s easy to just throw all your meat on the pan at once. But cooking with an even spread allows for moisture to escape and results in a more tender, flavorful dish.
29. You’re not familiar with your oven’s quirks: One of the big wild cards in all recipes is the idiosyncrasies our appliances have. Always follow your recipe, but you should know if your oven runs a little hot or heats up more on the top rack.
30. Not tasting as you go: This is an easy one to forget, but always try a spoonful of that sauce before you serve it. Even when following a recipe to a T, seasoning is always going to be best dictated by your own taste.
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31. Turning the food too often: Are you guilty of being a hyper-vigilant cook, hovering over the pan? Learning to leave food alone while it cooks will allow it to develop that delicious seared texture.
32. You melt chocolate too fast: Today associate food editor Julianna Grimes curdled chocolate when she tried melting it in the microwave. “It was all the chocolate I had on hand, so I had to dump it and change my plans,” she said.
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33. Not reading the entire recipe before starting: Ever read the first few steps of a recipe and think you got it, only to realize that you’re supposed to let the dish marinate for three hours before cooking? Yeah, us, too. Don’t be that guy.
34. Slicing meat along the grain, instead of against it: Even with a high-quality meat that you cooked to perfection, if your cut follows the grain (muscle fibers), it will end up being too chewy on the plate.
35. Not using a meat thermometer: This inexpensive tool is the secret weapon for experienced cooks. Appearances can be deceiving, so always measure the internal temp of your meat to determine if it’s really done or not.
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36. You over-work the dough: Novice bakers make this mistake all the time, overkneading the dough and resulting in a tough product. You’ll get that perfect texture in your scones, cookies, or biscuits if you stop kneading just as the flour is fully incorporated.
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37. You rush the caramelizing process: For your onions to achieve that luxurious, melt-in-your-mouth caramelized quality, you can’t rush the process. It can take up to an hour on low to medium heat, but the end result is worth it.
38. Your egg whites are too cold: In order to get that perfectly glossy, creamy consistency with whipped egg whites, make sure they’re at room temperature. If they’re straight from the fridge, they’ll resist fluffing up.
39. You underbake cakes and breads: “You won’t get that irresistible browning unless you have the confidence to fully cook the food,” said Today associate food editor Julianna Grimes.
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40. Overheating low-fat milk products: Milk and cream can boil just fine, but if you’re substituting low or non-fat milk, be aware that they will curdle much faster. The secret is to heat slower, and to no more than 180 degrees.
There’s also a few kitchen tricks you can use to keep from making errors. Next time you’re working with an onion, try putting a metal spoon in your mouth. It lifts the soft palate and prevents tears from forming.
2. Avoid water from boiling over: Have you ever left the kitchen for even just one minute only to come back to the water you left boiling spilling out everywhere? Next time place a wooden spoon over the top to prevent overflow.
3. Peeling a hard-boiled egg: Sometimes it can be tricky to peel off the shell of a newly hard-boiled egg without wrecking it. Instead, after cracking your egg, place it in a glass of water and shake it. The cracked shell should peel away easily afterward.
4. No-mess tacos: It doesn’t matter who you are, no one likes having to clean dishes after a meal. By putting your taco ingredients inside a bag of Fritos, you get the crunch and salt of a taco without any mess. Talk about inspired.
5. Quick and easy Nutella dessert: Most people agree Nutella is quite delicious, so why not savor every last bit in the jar? When you find yourself scraping the plastic bottom with a spoon, throw some cake batter in the container and put it in the microwave for a minute. Boom! Instant Nutella cake!
6. Make yogurt pops: Finding a healthy but enjoyable snack isn’t always easy. That’s why this simple idea is perfect: place Popsicle sticks into yogurt containers and freeze them overnight to make healthy yogurt pops!
7. Keep potatoes from spoiling: If you have some extra potatoes you don’t plan on using for a bit, prevent them from spoiling quickly by placing a fresh apple among the cluster. One bad apple ruins the whole bunch, but one good apple saves the whole bushel.
8. Save old coffee: Sometimes you buy a coffee and don’t finish it, but instead of dumping it out when it gets cold, freeze the rest in ice cube trays. Reach for them instead of plain ice the next time you have a cup of cold brew!
9. Clean cutting boards: Wood has a tendency to trap liquids and hold stains. Instead of letting your cutting board turn into a multi-colored mess, use lemon and fresh salt to give it a thorough scrub and watch the stains disappear.
10. Soften butter quickly: Trying to spread a cold hard piece of butter onto toast is almost pointless. If you forgot to leave the butter out to soften, fill a glass with hot water, empty it, then hold it over the butter. The heat from the glass will act as a softening agent without melting it completely.
11. Save herbs: Many times herbs are sold in large bushels, and you may not be using the whole thing at one time. Don’t let them go waste; put them in ice cube trays with cooking oil or butter and freeze them for an instant herbal sauté.
12. Take cinnamon buns to the next level: Who doesn’t love waking up in the morning to the smell of freshly baked cinnamon buns wafting through the house? If you want to take your buns to the next level, put them in a waffle iron!
13. Up your pancake game: If you want to impress the heck out of people using pancakes, get yourself a rice cooker and make your flapjacks in it. They’ll be so much thicker and fluffier than if you were to use a stovetop skillet.
14. Prevent avocados from browning: As delicious as those green creamy fruits are, they brown really quickly. To prevent this from happening, spray the avocado or guacamole with cooking oil to create a barrier between the fruit and the air.
15. Properly segment a watermelon: Cut the entire watermelon into quarter chunks, then cut into each quarter vertically and horizontally. When you’re finished, run the blade along the rind and viola!
16. De-pit cherries: It’s difficult to remove the pits of cherries without destroying much of the fruit. However, placing a cherry on a bottle top and using a long thin instrument, such as a chopstick, you can push the pit through without a problem.
17. Peeling ginger: It can be nearly impossible to work an actual peeler around a piece of ginger — they’re so awkwardly shaped. But, using the edge of a spoon will help you dig into the deepest crevices without a problem.
18. Sanitize a sponge: After a lot of use, sponges get nasty. They can harbor all sorts of germs and bacteria, but instead of throwing them away, wet them and place them in a microwave for at least two minutes. Nearly all of the harmful germs will die.
19. Peel a kiwi: Cutting off either end of your kiwi, line it up with a glass and simply pull it down to remove the skin in a couple of easy swoops! Beats trying to dig it out with a spoon!
20. Shuck corn quickly: It might seem like there’s really only one way to shuck corn, but if you cut off one end of the cob, you can easily slide the whole thing out without peeling away anything!